This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).
The harmful effects of climate change are already a daily reality in Miami, Florida, a city that grapples with having the country’s highest risk for hurricanes and sea-level rise. In 2019, a group of students and parents in Miami-Dade County Public Schools who were deeply concerned about climate change decided to step up to make sure their school, district, and state were taking serious action to protect their futures.
As a ninth grader, Thomas Brulay joined the Green Champions at his high school, Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy. The student-led group is working toward a goal of making their school the first zero-energy and zero-waste school in Florida. With support from parent Michele Drucker, a leader of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association, the Green Champions made huge strides toward this goal. The students secured a $40,000 grant from the Village of Key Biscayne to install a 26 kW solar array on the school’s PE field.
While they were making progress at their own school, they recognized that they needed to address the climate impacts of the entire district. As the fourth largest district in the country with 522 schools and over 350,000 students, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a sizeable footprint. The district spends $65 million per year on electricity, which is predominantly fueled by methane gas. With an ambitious vision to get their district to 100% clean energy, Michele, Thomas, and other climate advocates began working on plans to transform district policy and state legislation in support of their goal.
As Environmental Chair for the Miami-Dade County Council Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Michele drafted and introduced a resolution that called on the district to take urgent climate action and commit to 100% clean energy by 2030. In March 2021, 200 people attended a virtual meeting to show their support, and the PTA voted unanimously in favor of the groundbreaking resolution.
With the PTA’s endorsement and a groundswell of support from the community for climate action, the resolution was presented to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools School Board to officially adopt the 100% clean energy goal. At the April 21, 2021 school board meeting, Thomas was one of several students to speak in favor of the resolution. He told the board members: “You now have an opportunity to show tremendous leadership by becoming the first school district in the South to make such a bold commitment. A goal of 100% signals to students like me that you truly care about our future.” The school board unanimously passed the resolution, committing to a goal of 100% clean energy by 2030.
Right after the resolution passed, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would enable schools, municipalities, and tax-exempt nonprofit organizations to go solar with no upfront costs and make the transition to 100% clean energy affordable for the district. The Green Champions encouraged their school community and school board members to speak to their legislators about supporting the bill. Thomas started a petition and secured over 1,200 signatures in favor of the legislation. Michele wrote op-eds to newspapers and participated in advocacy events to garner public and legislator support. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass.
During the 2021–2022 school year, Michele served as vice chair of the district’s Clean Energy 2030 Task Force, which was commissioned by the school board to review current district sustainability measures and issue a report with an implementation plan and recommendations for moving forward. Based on the task force’s recommendations, the district is hiring its first Sustainability Director to lead the charge in achieving 100% clean energy.
Thomas graduated from MAST Academy in 2022 but remains firmly committed to clean energy advocacy. During his senior year, he continued to work toward getting his school to zero energy, meeting with solar developers and school board members about a plan for solar leasing and energy retrofits.
“What makes me the proudest is the amount of awareness on climate change and clean and renewable energy that now exists among students, parents, teachers, faculty, and board members in my community due to our advocacy and community work,” said Thomas. “Even school district leaders have realized that this issue is of great importance and are working hard to get our schools to become 100% net zero by 2030.”